This Friday, the “Boys in Blue” get a chance for redemption in a TSSAA Class 5A state quarterfinal playoff game.
The 21-20 loss to eighth-ranked East Hamilton in early October was the lone blemish on Cleveland’s District 5-AAA record preventing them from claiming the league championship.
“I think this is a whole lot more of a revenge game this week. The reality of it is, when you lose a really close game the first thing that all of us want to say is, ‘Man I want to play them again.’ That was our wish and now we get to play them again,” Cleveland head coach Ron Crawford declared.
To get to Week 13 for the first time since 2002, the Raiders first had to beat a Rhea County team that had completely turned their program around in a season.
Fortunately for Cleveland, even the new and improved sixth-ranked Golden Eagles were no match for the seasoned and balanced product coach Crawford and his staff have turned out.
“I thought last Friday would be a battle for us. I thought they were good enough offensively that it would cause us some problems. We got an interception on the second play of the game and went down and scored. Then we held them three-and-out twice and scored again. It’s 10-0 five minutes into the game and they’ve had it three times with zero first downs,” Crawford explained. “They had a nice drive (20 plays, 80 yards) to make it 17-7, but it was a drive that took them about eight minutes. We forced them to convert three fourth down plays and they were pecking and hunting and found something in the screen twice. Give them credit, but our offense came right back out and answered, making it 24-7.”
While the Raiders (9-3) went on to defeat Rhea County 31-7, the Hurricanes (10-2) were getting revenge of their own on an Ooltewah team that had handed them their only District 5-AAA loss.
On Sept. 20 the Owls topped East Hamilton 28-26, but last Friday it was the Hurricanes who came away with a 26-19 win, marking the first time they defeated the school they were formed out of five years ago.
Cleveland has won five straight games since its heartbreaking loss to the Hurricanes, including a 26-21 victory over seventh-ranked and District 5-AAA champion Ooltewah.
“I think our consistency has been good since then. After that game we have gained more confidence and have beaten good teams since that point. We’ve beaten the No. 1 team (Rhea) in our quadrant decisively, so I think we’re probably more confident,” Crawford stated.
The balanced offense possessed by the Raiders is one of the reasons the team has seen such success.
“We’ve continued to have a balanced offense. When we had the run Friday, we ran the ball. We’ve had games when we couldn’t run the ball so we threw the ball. Balance is getting first downs. I do think we’re a threat in deep ball, screen game, and our running game,” Crawford explained.
When it comes to the Raiders’ running game, coach Crawford has seen juniors TJ Parker and Raekwon Bunion really come into their own this season.
“It’s pretty remarkable for a passing team to have a 1,000-yard rusher and a near 700-yard rusher. I think they’re both good football players; TJ has made himself a great football player and I think Raekwon is an outstanding athlete who has learned to become a more complete football player,” Crawford said of the duo who both had 100-yard games last week.
Parker is averaging 6.8 yards per carry and has gained 1,077 yards and has scored seven touchdowns, plus he has caught 16 passes for another 210 yards. Bunion, who missed a couple of games during the season, has 694 yards on 117 rushes, plus pulled in seven receptions for 79 yards.
With quarterback Austin Herink soundly at the helm of the passing game, Cleveland has seen it improve this season as well. The senior southpaw signal caller has completed 202-of-307 passes for 2,905 yards with a 30-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
“It comes back to picking your poison. Our offensive line is better, so you have to give credit to them, as both of our backs would,” Crawford stated. “We’re able to spread the field and throw the football. We’re able to run block pretty good. Our scheme has helped us along with playing to our strengths.”
While a dozen Raiders have caught passes this season, seniors wide receivers Tyler Davis and DJ Jones have led the area.
Davis is the only local receiver to surpass the 1,000-yard mark with 1,028 yards on 42 catches (24.5 ypc) with 11 of them finishing in the end zone.
Jones is tops in the area with 61 receptions, gaining 864 yards (14.2 ypc) and hit paydirt 16 times. He has also carried the ball 15 times for 62 yards and four scores, plus has a 91-yard kickoff return to give him 21 total TDs so far this season.
Along with the two senior receivers, other players have had to step up throughout the season.
“I think that Jay (McIntyre) and Brandon (Williams) have both done a really nice job. Jay is a guy we have leaned on in a number of spots this year, so our confidence is high in him. Brandon has been a guy who never played football and we’ve been pleased with him all year long,” Crawford explained. “Nothing can replace the experience that Eric (Goodwin) had, but we’ve got two guys who have similar qualities to Eric in that position. They want to do their best, they don’t want to let the team down, and both have poise and confidence.”
While Cleveland’s offense has been worthy of recognition this season, Crawford pointed out that the team’s defense has come up big as well.
“All of the headlines go to our offense, but look at the district scores this year; we had the No. 1 scoring defense in district games. We’ve given up just 15 points in the first two playoff games combined. Our defense is getting better. We’re still undersized, we’re still scrappy and I love that personality,” Crawford declared.
Linebackers Jonathan Terrero and Darius Pillow lead the Raider “D,” with 132 and 121 total tackles respectively.
Terrero has 88 solo tackles in his number with a trio of tackles for loss and five takeaways, plus the big PAT block to preserve the one-point victory over archrival Bradley Central.
Pillow has made 76 solo tackles, has 10 tackles for loss, plus a half dozen QB sacks and also has five takeaways.
Senior defensive back Jackson Earle is also among the tops in the area with 59 solo, 45 assists, three TFL and a trio of takeaways.
The Raider defense has forced 29 turnovers in 12 games so far this season.
According to Crawford, there are a number of unsung heros putting in defensive work.
“I think it would start with Jackson Earle and maybe TJ Parker, who gets so much credit offensively. Jackson is a guy who has really improved even here lately. I’ve bragged over and over again about our defensive ends being so dynamic while being undersized,” Crawford said. “Obviously our inside linebackers make a lot of tackles. The play of our interior guys, Tre’Var Moore, Tre Simpson and Koran Kennedy, has been consistent for us. We’ve had some other guys step in and help us inside like Michael Ledford, who is another undersized guy, and Malik McDermott.”
When Cleveland and East Hamilton meet up for the year’s final battle of the District 5-AAA teams, Crawford knows to be ready for the big plays put up by the Hurricanes.
“Offensively they are going to go ‘big play’ you; we’ve got to find where (Vanderbilt commitment Tre) Herndon and (Tony) Francois are. I think we’ve got to put pressure on their quarterback, Hunter Moore, who is a really good player. They’ve struggled to be a team that drives the ball and have been a big-play oriented offense,” Crawford stated.
“We have got to avoid the big plays, which goes back to knowing where their key players are every time. We cannot let them catch a screen and go 70. We cannot let them catch a post or goal right over our head. We can’t miss any tackles or they will score. We’ve got to challenge them and force them to run the football. What worries me is their big-play capability. You can play 10 plays great then they chuck one open and score.”
The Hurricanes have outscored their opponents 370-223 this season, posting almost 3,300 yards of offense.
Senior QB Hunter Moore has completed 167-of-298 passes for 2,953 yards and 22 TDs, while being picked off just eight times.
Tony Francois has pulled in 41 of those passes for 1,281 yards for a 31.4 ypc average, while Herndon has 29 catches for 404 yards.
After missing a couple of games due to a late-season thigh injury, Matt Milita returned last week. He leads the Hurricanes with 699 yards on 151 carries this season.
This marks the second straight year East Hamilton has made the playoff quarterfinals, doing so last year while still playing in Class 4A.
On Friday, Crawford hopes the Cleveland faithful will pull out their weather-appropriate gear, as rain is being called for in the forecast, and head down to East Hamilton for what he expects to be a good, clean football game.